During a PSN sale the better part of a year ago, I picked up Nioh for half price. Despite a growing feeling that these tough action RPGs weren’t for me anymore, I went for it.
Nioh is an excellent game. I spent my first ten or so hours with the game getting into the atmosphere, messing with different weapon types and stances, dying, learning to ki pulse. I was reading about the game and even just about William Adams himself (the real guy, not the hanging out with spectral pink dogs one). In other words: I was really enjoying my time with Nioh. It was the rare game where I was stoked to hear that I had dozens and dozens of hours ahead of me from where I was.
Then I got to the story mission “The Ocean Roars Again.”
For the most part I was having a lot of fun, just like usual. Nioh is generally tough but fair. It’s fast and brutal, but it has patterns that -- in that Team Ninja and Dark Souls-y way -- are rewarding to figure out and super satisfying to play off of. This level takes place in a flooded village, filled with precarious walkways and lots of yokai. It was a satisfying lesson in fighting what first feel like unwieldy enemies in very tight quarters. I was dying and learning and coming back stronger than ever. It was great.
Then I got to Umi-bozu. Despite the fact that he has a name that is very fun to say and spell, I fucking hate Umi-bozu.
For starters he has a bad, dumb body:
It’s just a jelly blob with some glowing orifices. Stupid! It’s not fun to lose to something like that; it’s like losing to a baby character in Mario Kart.
I also hate how my weapon does jack shit damage against Umi-bozu, the worst blob ever. I was holding my own just fine for the rest of the game until now, including the level leading up to this jerk, but against The Man Himself? I’m doing a fraction of a pittance per hit over here. I generally use axes and spears. I tried a couple kinds of each weapon type, and I tried fire paper for my weapon (helped, but didn’t get me there). Meanwhile he’s got a dumb mouth laser attack that isn’t the worst to dodge but takes about 90% of my health if it gets me, and all sorts of crazy twists when he jumps onto the dock later in the fight.
Where you fight Umi-bozo might be the worst part, actually: a dark, wet dock with some holes in it. It’s really tough for me to remember where these wet, soggy holes are, if you know what I mean. Sometimes I’m doing really well against Umi-bozo and then my camera jerks around because it’s trying to follow William into a watery pit, because he’s dead. These are, by a wide margin, the worst Umi deaths.
Eventually I started running out my Ochoko Cups and hoping for a strong visitor to just whup Umi’s ass for me. I probably popped ten cups, and results were unanimous: none of the people I summoned were hitting Umi-bozu very hard either! Solo I could usually run Umi down to 30% or so. A couple of my co-op attempts were tantalizingly close, probably less than 5%. But no dice.
After dozens upon dozens of attempts, I’m deflated. So: are there any Nioh fans out there that can tell me what I’m doing wrong? I would love to get past Umi-bozu and get on with what I’ve otherwise found to be an outstanding game! Is there something I’m missing? Even though the level itself I found fine, do I need to quit out and level more elsewhere? Have any game-stopping boss stories of your own to share?
The last time I wrote one of these, I mentioned I was a new parent. Now I'm a slightly less new parent! Leon is like three months old now. He's a little more upright, definitely more easygoing. He's chewing a lot; we're thinking he may start teething a little early. Still very much a handful! But it's striking how much a baby does grow in a short time, regardless of how many people tell you before you have one. I guess it's one of those things you need to experience yourself.
Gotti -- er, GOTY -- er, Game of the Year!
What a season, what a season. My GOTY list is mostly written; FFXV is the last game I'll play this year, and I'm hoping it'll join the list. Otherwise it's written. As I edit I'm thinking about how this'll be the last year for a while where I can really write one of these things. With a baby in the apartment and plenty to save up for these days, I intend to play a lot less new games in 2017. And one of them is going to be Persona 5, which I suspect will take up a significant chunk of the year for me. I'm certainly not complaining, but it is fun to be a part of this year-end conversation. It's been fun to write this one! And I can't wait to spend a bunch of spare moments over the holiday break reading as many GOTY lists around here as I can.
In the spirit of that season, here are my honourable mentions for the year:
Thanks to Salt & Sanctuary for providing a smart, 2D take on Souls-style combat and exploration that I totally liked better than this year's Souls offering (even if I didn't finish you, either).
Sometimes I was frustrated, sometimes bored, but cheers to The Witness for going all in on its endless line puzzle variations set on a beautiful island. The Tetris piece swamp area was a tough, memorable trial. Your behind-the-curtain reveal was great.
The Tower of Fortune and the Dice of Fate was my first Shiren the Wanderer game. It gave me plenty of punishing, old-school roguelike fun before I tapped out trying to clear the Tower of the Future. Even for a scrub like me, it was a great time while I could hack it.
Absolute Drift: Zen Edition was a brief fascination for me that packed in tons of fun within a singular premise: drift a car around from a top-down perspective. You gas, you brake, you steer. How much nuance and depth of skill is built around that basic core is a testament to this game's impressive feel and clever maps. That skill ceiling got the better of me around the time that second or third midnight events showed up, but dang. A great little game.
Finally there's Thumper, AKA "one of the only games that's made me wonder what VR is like." What a weird, gnarly nightmare in the best way. A super-tough rhythm game with intense visuals and unnerving soundtrack. The input feels precise and mistakes feel vicious. If you've played a lot of rhythm games, that's probably all you need to hear to be in. I got well and truly stumped toward the end of Thumper, but what I got to really left an impression. Maybe next year I'll finally finish! Love the creepy boss designs.
Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow is my second Castlevania, and I'm digging it
Excepting Lords of Shadow and a ton of second-hand experience through VinnyVania, I've only ever really played one Castlevania game: Symphony of Night. Following that up with some of the well-regarded GBA entries, which resemble the basic structure and flow of SotN, seemed like a natural place to start. Without looking any of them up, I chose Aria of Sorrow -- the last of the GBA trio -- because I liked the title best.
As you may expect with this series, the story setup is completely nutty. You play as Soma Cruz -- Soma Cruz! -- an exchange student living in Japan. He's sucked up from his workaday life and into a lunar eclipse that...happens to contain the realm in which Dracula and his castle were sealed away in 1999. OK!
The depth and range of your movement options in Aria of Sorrow is a treat. It's a little slow going until you've racked up a few basic abilities, but once you do the game lets you glide, slide and double jump across the map like a madman. That helps other parts of the design; I feel like this game requires you to really poke and prod at the map, moreso than Metroid. Between the unlockable fast travel points and speedy traversal, trips across large portions of the castle don't feel like too big a deal because you're positively racing through it. I really like the skill system as well, wherein acquirable skills are essentially drops from the enemies whose attacks they replicate. These "souls" can be active or passive, and messing with your skill loadout once you have a bunch to choose from is a ton of fun -- not to mention satisfyingly necessary to progress.
My favourite moment so far? Probably the fight with Death. That was awesome.
I'm almost-but-not-quite done with Aria, and I already feel like I want to keep exploring the series. I've heard Circle of the Moon is real tough, so maybe Harmony will be next. Or perhaps Dawn of Sorrow, which I guess is a fairly direct sequel to this game that retains the cool skill system.
The Animal Crossing update is fantastic
Over the past few months, I've considered that New Leaf may be my favourite game ever. It's been a mainstay for me three years running. I've almost certainly spent more time with it than any other game. And with the game's new Welcome Amiibo update, I intend to tack quite a few more hours onto that count.
That name sells the update short; there's some legitimately fun ways to use your amiibo in this game, which is more than most games that support them can say. It's just that the additions and improvements go way beyond that, and the update is well worth checking out if you don't care about that delightful creation from Nintendo that blends both toy and game alike.
After a few days of upgrading your house, you'll get a new upgrade option that lets you discretely store a ton of items and spin and drag your furniture around quickly on the touch screen. Again: you don't have to push and pull and make way for all your furniture anymore! Lots of new items and ones from Happy Home Academy now populate this game. There's new dialogue with villagers. You can chill on rocks now. There's a whole new daily quest system that rewards MEOW coupons, a new currency you can use at the new campground area. There you can chill with Rufus, a rad new AC universe character. Browse his wares, or buy stuff out of visiting character's campers. A new item lets you tap amiibo and have them visit, and most of them have great items and funny dialogue to boot. Among those items are Wii U and 3DS systems that let you play Desert Island Escape -- aka the only good part of Amiibo Festival -- and an Animal Crossing Puzzle League game respectively.
Welcome Amiibo even improves bulldozing your old save file to start a new town. Instead, you can now call Tom Nook -- ever the soulless businessman -- to slap a bell value on your town and item catalogues. I got just shy of ten million for my town, but it was my second -- longtime towns with tons of development can end up with quite a bit more than that. Then you choose from a lump sum or installment payment. You end up with more doing installments, so I chose that. Now I'm living the Animal Crossing Cash for Life lifestyle. Every day about 100'000 bells show up in my ATM, and I'm freed up to do some serious museum donating and public works while I stack that paper.
The game is rejuvenated in all kinds of ways, and I can definitely see why Nintendo is rebranding and re-releasing this game on the retail level too. Welcome Amiibo is the rare game update that uses tweaks both big and small to substantially improve the base. I'll be spending plenty more time with New Leaf, and I couldn't be happier about that.
That about covers it for now. Thanks for reading! Let's talk FFXV next time.
At of the end of August, my fiancé and I welcomed our first kid into the world. His name is Leon! It’s been a big education for us these past few weeks, and overall things have been going pretty well. He is happy, healthy and hungry. Mainly hungry! I give Baby Leon five stars.
Of course, the intersection of video games and being a new dad has been just one minor learning process. I found myself once again enjoying Destiny a whole lot with its big new patch, looking forward to the new strikes and gear Rise of Iron would undoubtedly provide should I invest. But I realized Destiny also failed a very recent golden test for video games and me: it doesn’t pause.
You have some time to play games with a newborn, but it’s segmented time. Sometimes you’ll get an hour, sometimes 20 minutes before it’s time to wash a load of bottles or take a lengthy, bouncy stroll around the apartment to soothe the beast. Sometimes you get 5! Being able to fly from whatever you’re doing at a moment’s notice is key.
I realized that some forthcoming games I was really looking forward to, like Titanfall 2, will also have this now insurmountable obstacle. Those games came off the games budget for this year. Hopefully by the time For Honor rolls around those stretches of time will get a little longer, because that game hooks me in deeper each time I see it…though it comes out on the same day as Persona 5! Everybody got choices.
Thankfully lots of games do pause, and I decided to pick up one of those: Hitman.
I’ve been on the fence since I started watching Giant Bomb’s extended, hilarious coverage of this game. I’m glad I took the plunge on it, though I’m also glad I waited at least this long.
Hitman’s focus on contract killings while staying hidden in plain sight makes for a tense, unique play on stealth games. But for a game so brutal in subject matter, it’s the funny and absurd touches that make it. The way nearly everyone in this world seems to suffer from prosopagnosia, accepting of your identity as long as the hulking, menacing and inarguably memorable presence of Agent 47 wears the right duds. The way taking an unconscious dude’s disguise folds your old clothes into a crisp, folded pile on the ground. The way you can knock someone unconscious by whipping a coconut at their dumb head. Hitman can be pretty bonkers, and that tone mostly works. Best NPC dialogue of 2016?
Things are shaky on a technical level even after several episodes and patches since release — at least from where I’m sitting on the PS4. AI can be finicky, to say the least. They’ll get stuck on objects and cancel out of mission-critical conversations. Sometimes people guarding an area won’t get into their “Hey, you can’t be in here” spiel until you’re past them. It seems like you’re wearing an appropriate disguise before you realize you very much aren’t, and by the time you swing back around it can often be too late through no real fault of your own. The framerate is erratic. By default it’s unlocked, which causes major, distracting fluctuations in performance. Thankfully you can choose to lock it at thirty for a more stable ride. I would recommend giving that a try.
Other issues are less tolerable and don’t have a quick fix — the always-online nature of the game comes to mind. I’ve had the game refuse to load my save from the menu several times, then refuse any other input once it was stuck trying to get the saves. The only way out was to close the app and restart it over again, and not even that always worked. One particularly dreary reload to the very end of Sapienza had wiped the progress on one of my objectives — while not resetting the key item that needed to be destroyed to re-complete it. That particular bug meant my entire, hour-long run of that mission was a total loss.
I really like Hitman, and I want to love it. I don’t think I’ll come anywhere close to maxing out the copious challenge lists for each mission, but I worked my way through the story targets so far in just a few sittings and have been back to try out some new approaches since. The core conceit is interesting but flawed, further blemished by some spotty performance. I haven’t yet finished the fifth and latest episode set in Colorado, but it’s alright so far. Having four targets and setting it against a more hostile backdrop ratchets up the stakes, but the super-sensitive nature of where you can and can’t be is highlighting a lot of those AI quirks I talked about earlier.
I’m going post a full review of Hitman once the finale is out, so for now I’ll just say I’m…ambivalent.
I’m not very good at Absolute Drift: Zen Edition but I’m glad I played it.
The aptly named Absolute Drift is almost exclusively about drifting between, around and through increasingly tricky roadways and obstacles. The basics of this are imparted to you with a few lines of faux-zen drift wisdom by what can only be described as the Buddha of Drifting. Despite the game’s isometric perspective, silly subtext and high contrast pop, the act of drifting requires just the right amount of initial steering, throttle and counter-steer to really work. You may be surprised by how serious Absolute Drift can feel once you’re into it.
Regardless of its mindful instruction, it’s likely your first while will be a real shit show. If you’re anything like me you’ll spend a lot of time giving your car way, way too much gas before realizing just how little is needed to get wrapped around the corner the way you want. Once you gain a basic confidence at the controls, Absolute Drift feels amazing. Even when you’re botching things up real bad, the rock solid handling model gives you all the feedback you need to realize what went wrong, and how that could be avoided in the future.
That doesn’t mean things don’t eventually get real hard, though. I’m in a weird place with it now where I’ve finished the game’s “story” or whatever you want to call it, left to comb the free-roam challenges and driftkhana courses I couldn’t clear the first time around or attempt the even trickier (but crazy satisfying) midnight courses. I don’t know how much further I want to — or can — push my skills at this point, but I’m glad I got as far as I did. This was one of the bigger surprises of the year for me.
Costume Quest 2 was a fun early start to the Halloween season.
Fall is here. Do you like to be spooped? To experience spoopy content — like a game, perhaps? I do, but I’ve been having trouble picking out spoopy games to play this year. I’ve already played a lot of the more recent horror games — Alien: Isolation, A Machine for Pigs, Soma, Outlast. I don’t have a PC anymore, which takes me out of the running for a lot of stuff. I tried The Evil Within again but I still hate it. I thought hard about Fatal Frame for Wii U, but then I saw that it takes up like 15+ GB of space — that’s more space than I have on my Wii U, dog! Than many people would have, I imagine. I don’t have an external for it and don’t really want to invest in one at this point.
Pickings are slim for me is what I’m saying.
That doesn’t mean Costume Quest 2, which I eventually settled on, wasn’t a fun way to kick off the spoopy season. Sure, it’s not scary. But it does an amazing job at reminding you why that spoopiest of holidays, Halloween, is such a special time for kids. If that conceit sounds good to you, this is probably your game. If you like RPGs — especially Paper Mario, which this game’s combat borrows heavily from — but don’t necessarily want a forty-plus hour sojourn at the moment, this is extra your game. The time travel plot leaves room for lots of fun with the cast of the original, too.
There’s not a lot to dig into mechanically in Costume Quest 2, particularly if you played the first one and notice that a good amount of the costumes are borrowed. Either way it doesn’t take long to master the game’s basic timing system, but by that time you’re probably fighting the last boss — and partaking in the super cute credits sequence at a neighbourhood Halloween party to follow. Though it cribs from it, Costume Quest is no Paper Mario. But it’s a lean five-ish hour adventure that supports its simple combat with plenty of charming dialogue and silly story to prop everything up nicely. If you’re looking some lighter Halloween fare or just want a top-up of those Double Fine charms, CQ2 did nicely for me.
Speaking of forgetting — I played through Super Mario 64 maybe a month ago, and I completely forgot about the weird boss that’s just big fists made of sand blocks with eyes in the palms. I remembered the first part of the star — standing on the pyramids in Shifting Sand Land, the pyramid top lifting away when you do. But the ominous elevator ride down, the eye-punchin’ action of the boss? It felt brand new. I’ve played this game I dunno how many times.
Even with his unpleasant omnipresence and troubling nonchalance at the wild, wild stuff going on around him, the merchant is pretty well your only friend in Resident Evil 4. He’s not actively trying to murder you, anyway. Seeing the blue flames that festoon his makeshift shops is always a comfort, one that stands in for the feeling of revisiting this game for me in general.
RE4 is one of the best and most memorable games I’ve ever played. I feel like even the most banal moments of my experience with it are memorable by association. I was 15 when it came out. I went to the EB Games right near my place to pick it up. They only had one copy of the game left by the time I got there, a “gutted” copy they take the discs out of so they can have a display case. (EB is still around in Canada, and they still do this today.) They “sealed” the case with sticker and I took it home. Turned out they forgot to put the discs in the case. I went back.
This inconvenience was just one more step on what felt like a long, tension-building road to buying the game. I read and re-read any previews of the game I had in my stack o’ magazines for what must have been a year, re-absorbing all the hype that was following it. It was palpable even for me — someone who had, for example, never played any Resident Evil before (I’ve since tried more). Or any horror game for that matter.
By the time I had finally gotten it into my Gamecube, the surrounding mood was downright intimidating. I remember resting on the title screen a few moments to soak up its ominous drones, watched its figures slide into focus, studied them. And then that voice:
The game beyond that title screen did little to put me more at ease. It was scary and brutal, lengthy and tough. Each new area and encounter raised the stakes just a bit more, and before I knew it those stakes were fully realized. It was the first time I remember feeling palpable adrenaline while playing a game. It was the best, and few games since have made that sort of mark on me.
The game has been released every couple years since then, and I think that semi-constant resurfacing is why RE4 doesn’t feel almost twelve years old to me. It is though, and the PS4 release that went up for sale this week seems like a good bet if you’d like to re-experience it again. Or hey, maybe for the first time? It runs at a solid sixty frames and has been substantially sharpened from its last console release. (Taking decent video isn't an option for me right now, so let this official peek do the talking.) Excepting that ambitious fan remastering of the recent PC version — and those with relatively good PCs to boot— this is probably the best way to play RE4.
And it’s still worth playing. I’m struck by what a challenging, confidently designed game it is over a decade after release. As Greg Kasavin put it in his review all those years ago, RE4 “tightens the leash” on you masterfully. I struggle to drum up many other games that teach you something new and test your limits with each and every moment, and that entertain in ways as endless. The moment you feel like you’re getting a handle on your foes, along comes another complication: tentacles that scrape away at you long range, maybe. Scary monk guys with big chunky shields. Or who could forget the parasites you need to precision target with a thermal scope? Each new piece introduced requires its own careful approach, and you’ll have to remember and juggle several at once before long.
The areas you’re pushing through employ a similar philosophy: at first they’re fairly large, with lots of open areas to herd villagers into and side paths to get yourself out of harm’s way. Sight lines are plentiful and let you check up on other parts of the area easily. The enemies within them aren’t to be underestimated, but the lay of the land is an asset, and that’s a huge comfort. Little by little, those spacious oases start to disappear. The hallways connecting them narrow - the ultimate manifestation of this is, to me, the fight with "It".
Ugh. Meanwhile, you’re running lower on ammo. You’ve got a defenceless partner to check up on, lest you get that most demoralizing of Game Overs.
This started out as a two-sentence PSA that, unlike the recent RE5 re-release, this port one is just fine. The best games give me the best opportunities to ramble, though! I just had my first kid — more on that in the next blog — so I’m not sure when I’ll be able to play through Resident Evil 4 again. But I’m having as much fun as ever chipping through this latest version, and hopefully some of you are too.
Rhythm Heaven is like the Warioware of rhythm games - it’s developed by the same Nintendo internal team that made that series, actually. There’s a bunch of short songs in every game, each with its own set of graphics and unique hook on a simple core premise: pressing (mostly) the A button in time with certain rhythmic cues. The fun is mastering each hook quickly and seeing all the colourful backdrops and quirky characters along the way.
Megamix has 20 new stages all its own, but it’s got 50 or so more from past games in the series. That includes several from Rhythm Tengoku, the GBA original that never released outside of Japan. Tengoku was the very first game I imported, and it’s great to see some of its best and most memorable moments remastered here. That includes Spaceball, wherein a baseball player stands in a three-walled room in outer space and socks dingers into the void to a salsa rhythm. Hole-in-One has a monkey and mandrill pitching you golf balls, and it’s a great example of how this series can take a few simple cues and stretch them into something tricky and satisfying - particularly its tougher second variant. Or how about the original Karateman stage, including that song with the friendly lady singing?
Many of the stages are entertaining…but that’s mostly because they were entertaining in their respective GBA, DS or Wii releases. If you’ve played those games before, there’s not a lot of new stuff to dig into. The new stages are mostly OK - the straightforward but briskly-paced Animal Acrobat stands out as a solid entry - but a lot of them don’t hold much of a candle to the old stuff. So while there’s a good amount of content here in total, a lot of it will have little value for returning players. Playing a bunch of old favourites feels comforting but hollow, devoid of challenge or the thrill of having to perform new rhythmic mechanics just after learning them.
Even without a veteran perspective on the series, Megamix has some issues. The story mode is the worst offender. Tibby’s a cutesy bear-like creature who needs to get home to his family in Heaven World. Something’s been messing with people’s “flow,” and they need to be helped out by Tibby along the way. It can be admirable for its sheer goofiness (Donna the donut lady’s donut enthusiasm comes to mind), but too often the story blithely references its own growing tedium. You meet a character, sit through some energetic but ever-repetitious chatter about getting one’s “flow” back, clear stages. It is the absolute loosest possible connective thread for these stages, and I wanted to hammer the A button to get moving in short order. For so much silly talk about the principles of rhythm and flow, the cast of Megamix sure does break the story’s own cycle of progressing through stages quickly when you’ve got a good run going.
The sequencing of the stages themselves is a little off, too. The first run of the story is filled with short, very simple stages. After an early credits fake out, second versions of a lot of levels unlock. Those start to feel more in line with their original forms. But again, if you’ve played a bunch of this series before, it’s likely you’ll blaze through a lot of the game anyway, even after that first ending. There’s a challenge mode that lets you take on little clusters of stages under tougher circumstances, like speeding the tempo way up. Challenges still pop up to clear a specific stage without missing any cues, too. It just doesn’t feel like it adds up to much when - again - lots of fans of the series have sunk time in the last three game’s near-identical challenge modes.
Some of Megamix’s new features are great though, like how the game offers universal button or touch control schemes for all stages. During a stage, the 3DS’ bottom screen is used to show how accurate your button presses are. Perfect hits erupt a rainbow-coloured ring from the centre of the touchscreen. If you’re too early or too late, a yellow or red ring appears to the left or right of centre, respectively. It’s a simple but amazingly effective way to communicate some of the trickier timing required in the later stages. Also of note: you can quickly switch the game audio from English to Japanese with a button in the game’s cafe menu! That’s pretty cool.
Those quality of life changes augment what’s already a solid rhythm game through and through; the songs are still catchy, the the wacky rhythm gameplay feels tight as ever. But Rhythm Heaven Megamix treads so little ground of its own that it’s tough to get too excited about it. It’ll hold the most appeal for newcomers to the series or diehards that crave a bunch of existing games from the series in a single, remastered package. The challenge mode and some unlockable trinkets extend your possible time with Megamix a little bit, but the fan in me can’t help but feel a little let down by its mostly remodelled package.
OK, so maybe a lot of games were leaked - or just plain shown - before E3 proper this year. And hey, E3 itself isn’t as crucial as it used to be. That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of great-looking stuff at the show! Here’s what stood out to me most, in no particular order:
Pyre is an identifiably Supergiant game from a mile away: the overhead perspective, Jen Zee’s striking artwork, the exotic overtones of Darren Korb's score. But what really intrigues me about it are the ways it seems to veer completely from Bastion and Transistor. The group dynamic they’ve established so far seems great. I love the idea of Greg Kasavin having a cast of characters to inhabit and draw out for us. Mystery has and almost certainly will keep playing a key role in Supergiant’s work, but Pyre feels bigger and more involved than the player-narrator relationship established in their past work.
The game itself looks real good too. I already feel like I want to pick apart the cool, fantasy sport battle system and see what sorts of strategies I can pull out of it. It looks like it’ll be tricky to learn but satisfying to improve at. The adaptive AI sounds like an interesting way to surface your particular strengths and weaknesses in battle. Can’t wait to absorb this one early next year.
Paper Mario: Color Splash
Nintendo games sure do look nice with an HD presentation, and I think Color Splash may be one of the most dramatic examples of that. Paper Mario has always had a vibrant look, but its E3 showing impressed me with its paper craft world, where every object looks like something you could reach out and feel. Here’s hoping it’s not at backtrack-y as Sticker Star and trims some of the well-written but long-winded dialogue that have hampered recent entries.
Monster Hunter Generations
After many years of heavy resistance, last year’s Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate finally made an MH fan out of me. Monster Hunter Tri - my closest-but-no-cigar attempt to get in on MH - was followed up by games like Dark Souls. In that interim between Tri and 4U, I was acclimatized to the kind of patience and forward thinking necessary to enjoy a game like MH.
Some refreshed areas and monsters of note from all the way back to the original will make appearances in Generations, which sounds like a great way for a recent convert like me to get a little history lesson. Underneath that substantial homage to Monster Hunter’s past lie some major, exciting changes. Weapon styles seem like one of the biggest ones, including one that turns your dodge into a jump among other concessions to help handle those bastard flying monsters. Maybe the best change of all: many crafting recipes now ask for a certain number of any part of a monster. No more - well, way less - butting your head against a particular foe until it drops precisely what you need.
That last one alone has got me real excited for Generations.
I probably don’t need to make much of a case for this one here on GB. It seems like exactly what I would want from a Persona sequel. Breaking the game up into bite-sized days, getting called on to give an answer in class, wandering through your high school halls (and now those halls, as well as city streets, are filled with people and even more cultural minutia to spot and appreciate). All-out attacks! Being able to talk to demons like in mainline SMT sounds like a bit of game changer. I can’t wait to get to know these characters and grind out the crew. I can’t wait to play Persona 5.
Ultimately, the date was all I need to know.
I’m glad we got quite a bit more than that, though.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild
After Nintendo’s Treehouse presentation, I have a strong confidence that it’s upcoming open world Zelda will retain all of the crucial elements that make the series an all-time favourite for me. Although we’ve been assured that traditional dungeons will be in the game, it seems like the world map is a lead character of a kind, a sort of meta-dungeon you’ll constantly be prodding at and manipulating everywhere you go. Link’s new tools seem smartly designed to be used and combined in all sorts of ways, with less of an emphasis on looking for a particular colour or formation to signal a tool’s use. There’s a jump button! Things feel different in the best possible way.
I feel like I want Breath of the Wild right now, damn it. It feels like it’s going to be the rare open world game that truly sucks me in. It even has me a little excited to actually use an amiibo in a game.
I don’t have a fucking clue about NieR. I was one of the apparent many fans of both JRPGs and Square that completely missed the cult hit original, but if the basic mood and flavour is anything like Automata…maybe I should rectify that.
Everything about this boss speaks to me. The cool goth robot design, the nimble movement, the crazy bullet-hell projectiles all over the screen. If the game ends up being this married to some RPG progression and an involving story, well…damn. I’ll be there.
Final Fantasy XV
Awkward fist-smooching demo at the Microsoft conference aside, I feel pretty damn good about Final Fantasy XV. The road trip vibe speaks to me, and feel pretty damn sold on the cool-looking expanses and 1940s-meets-far-future look of a lot of the cars. And after a strange and disappointing Platinum Demo, it’s nice to not only just see the real combat again, but to see that it’s evolved a lot from Episode Duscae. Divorced from the QTE-heavy model from Duscae, combat now seems much more concerned with clever buffing, debuffing and positioning.
Again, it’s too bad the demo at Microsoft chose to ignore pretty much all those things in favour of…a huge but uneventful canned boss sequence with a bunch of QTEs. If you’ve been following the copious preview footage already, that one demo isn’t that big a deal. If you haven’t been doing that though, I couldn’t see how it would entice you otherwise. But hey. The bright side of the new E3 footage? Flying that car around like an airship seems pretty fucking cool.
Last week’s Beastcast forced me to again consider console capability going into the future. I’ll talk about this more when we get to Firewatch, but: what’s in store for us console folk in the coming months? Or the coming years, if the PS4 and XB1 indeed last as long as they were purported to? Great performance on console is possible, definitely. MGS V immediately comes to mind as one of the best looking games this gen, and it ran at a solid 60 frames on PS4. But of course, not every developer is afforded the same time, money and personnel as a place like the former Kojima Productions.
Sometimes it bums me out to think about this holiday, or the 2017 holiday, and just how shaky the performance may be by then. It's cool, at least, that some developers are including graphics options in console versions of their games so that players can prioritize frame rate if they want. The Division is one such game, and after playing a little of that open beta this weekend I’m convinced we’ll dig deeper into that one in a future blogbox.
In the last week or so:
I spent a Saturday morning hiking through Firewatch.
I felt the need to keep myself away from Giant Bomb’s What It Is video for Firewatch, because I had come this far without knowing much more than I needed to play it. Now I’ve played it. So, Firewatch is: mostly what I expected! A walking simulator / Gone Home style experience that places you in the action of a mystery as opposed to the aftermath of one. I want to keep things spoiler free, so I'll say upfront that the opening felt a little forced and rushed to me, the ending jarring but pleasurably so, and leave it mostly at that.
Firewatch is a game about getting around. There is a hefty amount of navigation and backtracking in this game; you spend most of the game’s runtime trotting around the forest with your compass, occasionally pulling up your map to double-check your bearings. It's a great way to absorb the game’s many pretty sights, sure, but it also feels a lot like busywork. Often there's an engaging dialogue exchange to keep things from simply being a slog, but there's enough times where nothing happens for Firewatch to strike me as a little sluggish, even boring at times. As the game goes on, you increasingly have to hike the world corner-to-corner, back-to-back. It's not particularly arduous, but again: largely uneventful.
Performance on PS4 was rough. The game doesn't require any split-second input from you, so there's no worries there. But the pervasive chunkiness was enough to detract from the pleasant scenery and character building this game is all-in on. I also encountered a rare bug that causes the game to crash when loading. A quick reboot of the app fixed the problem, but it didn't exactly improve my perception of the game's performance. A patch recently hit that improves console performance, but it’s a bummer these optimizations come now, long after the launch audience has finished the game.
It's a shame pacing and performance issues plagued my playthrough, because the middle stretch of Firewatch is a tense and thoroughly enjoyable story about the rigours of isolation, physical and psychological. The ending, while rushed, ends with a quiet and unsure catharsis that felt appropriate in ways the intro fell flat on. It took my fiancee and I under four hours to play through Firewatch in a single sitting. While that says something for how compelling the overarching story really was, we were also kind of rushing it. I think we both would have felt more compelled to stop and really drink things in if the game wasn’t such a jog across the map for so much of its runtime. It’s no Gone Home as far as I’m concerned, but If you’re into these types of story-driven games I’d say it’s worth pursuing, despite the many nicks in its design and execution. I imagine playing on a capable PC would be best.
I snooped around the App Store for the first time in ages and found Swapperoo.
I haven’t kept up with iOS games in years. Swapperoo was a nice reminder that clever and captivating games are hitting iOS often, that I was wrong to ignore the App Store so long. It’s tough to sell a match-3 game in 2016, but Swapperoo does an admirable job of mixing things up in its own way from the start. Often you’re not swapping pieces directly like in Bejeweled, and you don’t have free movement of your pieces like in, say, Puzzle & Dragons. Instead, tiles are largely directional and move in the direction they’re facing when tapped. Directional drill pieces do the same, but destroy its target tile instead of swapping with it. Eye pieces move a space of their own volition each turn, causing you to think ahead and "trap" them into matches.
The game starts relatively simple…
...but before long, you start running into stuff like this:
And that’s well before you get to the Hard tier of levels, or dig deep into the game’s challenge levels.
It manages to make a unique stamp on match-3 gameplay, and If you're looking for something to squeeze in on bus rides or commercial breaks, you could do far worse than Swapperoo. It’s not mindblowing or essential, but it’s proof-positive that free-to-play nonsense hasn’t completely sullied the waters; a dollar or two can buy you an accomplished, polished and ad-free game on the App Store in 2016.
It’s an all-3DS bonanza on blogbox! I detail my sexy travels in Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright thus far; Final Fantasy Explorers provides a colourful but somewhat trite monster hunting experience; and I bid an informal farewell to Animal Crossing: New Leaf, one of my favourite games of all-time.
The last blog I wrote was a tiny one, chronicling my early days with Bloodborne’s great expansion. Here’s what I’ve been playing lately, now that the holidays are but a distant memory and Love Day is nigh:
I admired and stared on in utter bewilderment at The Witness.
The Witness is a game that’s all about moments of inspiration, of intuiting what’s expected of you after moments of starting down a single, grid-like maze on an in-game panel. It places beautiful, frequently haunting stone sculptures everywhere, often observing the world around them as scrupulously as you must. I spent twenty straight minutes on a puzzle earlier on before I cracked it, only for the sculpture next to me, gazing up in agony, to put a damper on things. It felt quietly rewarding, but not without its frustrations, even boredoms. And that’s far from the most time I’ve sat staring at a puzzle panel in The Witness.
After a few hours of poking and prodding at the island, connecting lines and beginning to grip the many, many mix-ups the game introduces to how lines must be made, every inch of the landscape begins to warrant a closer inspection. The game spends a lot less time easing you into new and trickier concepts. Symbols start appearing together on panels in ways that contradict the other’s ruleset, and all hell starts breaking loose in your head. In case you’re still working through the game as I am and want to keep things mysterious, I’ll simply say that many of my favourite puzzles from the game take place go beyond the panel. Each area has its own particular variation on puzzle panels, and it’s an enjoyable and often intimidating exercise to uncover a whole new trick...one that immediately shows all sorts of devilish potential. And then it ends up going way farther than you could’ve initially thought.
The Witness may often be tough, but it is almost always fair. Almost fair bears repeating. There’s a few sections toward the end - at least what could be considered an end - of the game that can feel pretty cheap, highlighting the design’s most devious subversions of rules in ways that feel more unfair or simply annoying than revelatory. They can be some of the most challenging puzzles in the game, no question, though often these late-game panels can feel like they’re challenging your resolve a little more than your intelligence. Cracking them is more relief than accomplishment, though more often than not the reward is, well, a few puzzles more difficult than the last set.
This leads me to something that’s more of a boon to The Witness than it is a complaint: this game refuses to hold your hand. More often than not, this suits the game’s commitment to wordless instruction and a mysterious nature. It’s worth noting that the openness of the game means you can walk away from a puzzle that’s giving you a hard time and go somewhere else, too. When you’re well and truly stuck, though? Like I am right now, with dead-ends greeting me in every obvious direction? There’s no recourse in-game to get you going again.
I’ve played maybe fifteen hours and with seven lasers going, I have my sights set on the endgame. Like I said earlier, the path to the end has been less enjoyable than many of the game’s other trials for me. I’m still having fun, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t play The Witness in big chunks anymore. I’m just chipping away now, happy to stretch my time out with it a little longer before I inevitably get puzzled out.
I finally got around to playing Resident Evil...in HD!
Resident Evil HD is a remastering of Resident Evil for the Gamecube, which was itself a full-on remake of the 1996 Playstation original. It’s my first real experience with the first chapter in the series at all; count me among the many who came in with the brilliant, hyper-polished action of the fourth game. I've been sporadically messing with RE games ever since, so many words Resident Evil HD is a tough and often obtuse adventure that requires a little bit of nerve and a lot of patience. If you can hang with that, your endurance pays off in all sorts of interesting and unexpected ways that can still feel real gratifying in 2016.
Or take, as another and more concrete example, the many ways it establishes a strong sense of time and place between your actions in the mansion and what the other surviving members of the S.T.A.R.S. team are up to. Heading one way early on as Jill means you’ll score the incredibly handy shotgun early on in your game, while doubling back too soon earns you some acid ammo while sending a friendly character off on another trajectory. Saving a character can mean they show up to essentially handle a boss for you later on.
Those turns of fortune can be a lifesaver, because getting up in the Spencer mansion can be tough going. The sensation of eking your way through it is the result of many quirks and subsystems working together. It can occasionally just feel old, but it's surprising how much of Resident Evil still works beautifully twenty years after it was designed. The static cameras look great and are still suspenseful as hell. Having to manage your lighter fuel, inventory and paths through the mansion to avoid the dreaded crimson heads really drives home the reality that getting through the mansion takes skill beyond just pointing and shooting. You need knowledge of what to have with you when, of the mansion layout, of the shifting story beats themselves, to make it through with a less-than-catastrophic conclusion. And when you don't possess that knowledge...you sort of just have to beat your head against the mansion until you happen upon the item you need to move onward. Or check your progress against a guide. I did a decent amount of both during my playthrough.
While I had a pretty good time playing, the insight on Resident Evil as a whole was the main draw for me. At first I thought dipping into this remake would lead me straight into the more recent re-release of Resident Evil Zero but, nah! I think I’m good...for now.
I played through Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, a conflicted port of a solid game.
Xenoblade remains an exciting and expansive JRPG even when this handheld port, exclusively for the New 3DS hardware, lets its limitations harsh through.
I don’t want to rag on Xenoblade 3D too much. It’s impressive this game can squeeze down onto a handheld at all, though there’s enough issues with this port to prevent it being the definitive version of Xenoblade Chronicles. Things generally run pretty smoothly, which is a good baseline to work from. That mostly smooth performance extends to the load times as well, which let you load into your save or fast travel across the world in a second or two. That’s a godsend! But that steady performance comes at the cost of noticeable pop-in and quite a bit of aliasing. It's most noticeable when you zoom the camera out to fight a big or flying monster; Shulk and crew are pared down to a pixelated stew. Even with those concessions, particularly huge creatures or effect-heavy boss sequences can still cause waves of slowdown. And don't even think about engaging the barely-noticeable 3D unless you really want to cut things back. Xenoblade felt kind of constrained back on the Wii, and scaling it back further for a handheld was an inevitable outcome.
The physical size of the New 3DS causes some problems as well. There's a ton of UI to keep tabs on in this game, and the size and resolution of the screen means that much of it is taken up by big buttons, meters and targets as soon as a battle begins. It can make maintaining a decent view of several targets a little wonky. The New 3DS C-stick works well and feels good for things like camera control, but there’s just not enough real estate to make it all work seamlessly.
Port limitations don't apply to content whatsoever, and that’s no mean feat. Every quest, collectable trinket and sprawling landmass of the Wii original is completely in tact here on 3DS, and the thought of how challenging a task that must have been was not lost on me. It takes a good fifty hours or so just for the main quest, and many more if you want to delve into its copious side diversions along the way.
It didn’t hook me quite like I thought it would, and it took me months of off and on play to finish the storyline through, without too much in the way of sidequesting or extra affinity-building. It’s offline-MMO combat was real rad though, enough of a sell that I’ve already picked up Xenoblade Chronicles X, it’s Wii U-exclusive sequel that seems to take everything I dug about this game several steps further while minimizing some of the flatter bits. Time will tell!
I reflect on Firewatch. Swapperoo ends up being the first iOS game that’s grabbed me in a while. And my sojourn through Xenoblade Chronicles X begins...
The low price and highly minimalistic look make it easy to dismiss, but this game is crazy cute, exceptionally clever and lengthier than you might think. Stick with it a few worlds and the game’s ability to thoroughly explore different concepts around your box-making before whisking you off to another one. If you have a 3DS and like six dollars, play BOX BOY! And then look forward to its sequel, which recently hit the Japanese eShop.
I admittedly only played Helldivers for a few weeks, but those concentrated hours over that short time left a major impression. This game is from the same developers as Magicka, and this game is effectively that with a Starship Troopers skin wrapped around it. That means enemies deal tons of damage, and there’s a heavy friendly-fire model in effect for the ‘divers. Having some friends to play with you is definitely the way to go, and even then it takes active care and consideration for it to really work. Once everyone has fought their way past the learning curve and shit is working, though, Helldivers is a treat.
08. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
This game was my fourth distinct attempt to enjoy a Monster Hunter game, and the first to wildly succeed. I think the fact that it completely removes the underwater elements of Tri has something to do with that. Seriously, the swimming hunts were the worst! Instead, there’s an emphasis on climbing around the new, vertically-minded level designs and dunking on cool huge monsters from above. It also has featured-packed, speedy multiplayer hub and a lengthy single player chapter that teaches you most of what you need to know in a digestible and thoroughly entertaining way (though checking in with a good guide or Gaijinhunter video doesn’t hurt, either). Even with all of its content and character progression elements, though, I see MH4U as something like Dota 2. It’s not so much a game you progress through and finish as a set of systems you learn, a ritual you perfect through dedicated practice, repetition and attention to detail. I feel like Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has a lot to offer everyone, even if you don’t have untold hours to dump into it (but all the better if you do!).
07. Dragon Quest Heroes: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below:
Similar to how MH4U finally got me into “monster hunting” genre at large, Dragon Quest Heroes is the first “musou”-style game that’s ever really clicked with me. Even though I’m not a particular fan of Dragon Quest, this game’s wonderful mixture of lavish JRPG-style cutscenes (really, they’re CG and they’re GREAT) and party building with the hacking and slashing fields of monsters into dust hits a sweet spot. There are hundreds of cool, cute Toriyama designs on screen, and there’s just enough finesse in how combos string together to discourage purely mashing your way through. The upgrade sheets for each character are addictive and effective, dishing out new techniques and impressive finishers as the difficulty ramps up. Oh, and I haven’t mentioned how I loved the tower defense tilt of summoning friendly versions of foes to hold position and help you control the flow of a map! An example of how a small detail goes a long way with such a colourful and infectious atmosphere behind it.
06. Heroes of the Storm:
I find it tough to write about MOBAs, even though there’s so much to focus in on. If you’ve played one before (Dota 2 was my particular brand), know that HotS is a simpler take on the genre. I find that to be almost universally a good thing for my gaming tastes today. There’s no item shop, no last hits, no lots of things that make some of the most popular games in the world what they are. That's the beauty of HotS: it manages to trim a lot of minutiae while leaving the essential thrill of a MOBA in place, the feeling that every piece of knowledge you gain about the game is immensely useful. The movement and skills of each hero feel immediate and visceral in a way no other MOBA has nailed. If you’re a Blizzard fan (like me), a huge number of the heroes will be of interest to you. I think the best tweak for me is HotS’ growing rotation of maps, each of which takes the essential topography of a MOBA playfield and melds it with unique map control features. Trailing hard and then collecting enough doubloons on the pirate map to launch a piratey counterattack to win it was one of my most vivid game memories of the year.
05. Destiny: The Taken King + 2.0 Patch:
Giant Bomb’s own GOTY discussions put it best, and I’m doing my best to paraphrase here: It’s almost inconceivable that the Destiny that released in 2014 was shaped into the Destiny of today. Between The Taken King and a ton of structural and systemic changes in its 2.0 patch, Destiny is a thoroughly more playable and enjoyable game to play now than ever. The loot drops feel so much better now, and the whole “light level” system was tweaked against the new questing to make just about anything you do feel like progress. And by the time Taken King rolled around, “anything” meant quite a few activities and game types to dig into. Even the PvP and Iron Banner stuff -- the type of stuff that never wins me over in a game typically -- got me good. It sounds like Destiny is set to wind down with its public event plans in 2016, but it’s 2015 was one for the books. Bring on Destiny 2.
04. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain:
There are many reasons why MGS V shouldn’t resonate with me at all, considering what breed of MGS fan I am. It’s really light on story by any game’s standard; the storytelling is positively gaunt for a Metal Gear game. It’s functionally a lot like Peace Walker, by far my least favourite game in the series, but it surpasses that game by so many bounds it's hard to maintain a comparison for long. Ultimately, MGS V just feels amazing to play in a way that Peace Walker - and indeed many MGS games - can't begin to match. It manages to sneak a good bit of ridiculousness in there, too.
03. Until Dawn:
Also known as my biggest surprise of the year by a mile. Until Dawn came out with almost no marketing or word of mouth, right at the end of the summer doldrums and right before MGS V took over every single game blog for a month. It’s a testament to just how god damned good Until Dawn is that it survived such conditions. An inspired, simultaneous celebration and deconstruction of a teen horror film, Until Dawn paints its broad strokes with stereotypes but fills in the details with interesting, hilarious, occasionally affecting expressions. It’s not as adaptive as you may of heard, but Until Dawn’s ride is so thoroughly entertaining it’s worth several playthroughs all the same. It’s tough to say much more without ruining everything. If you have a PS4, just go and play it!
I feel like it took hours for me to get over what Bloodborne isn’t compared to its Souls cousins before I could appreciate what it is on its own merits. Bloodborne is: a superlative action game, one that builds on top of its Souls predecessors just as much as it plays against them. Combat is vicious and nasty in this game, and shields are practically forbidden. This makes fighting the blood-crazed beasts in Yharnam an experience all its own, one that removes a lot of your traditional defensive tools and forces you to bear down and get in there in a scary, thrilling way. Although people criticize the doom-and-gloom palette as more of the same, I thought Bloodborne’s style stood as its own unique take on dark gothic fantasy, especially those delightfully twisted late-game areas. That distinctive quality extends to Bloodborne in general, and thanks to some smart patching and a deceptively bulky DLC offering, this game’s lasting power now seems all but assured. I finally started a new character to tackle it again.
01. Super Mario Maker:
I didn’t have a Wii U until December. I didn’t play Super Mario Maker until a few weeks ago. It’s my favourite game of this year, no question. I’ve been playing it for hours a day, tearing through 100-Mario playlists, filling up my bookmarks with GB community levels, and losing myself afternoons at a time in my own creations. There were plenty of nights over the holiday break where I took the Gamepad to bed with me. Then I’d leap out of bed as soon as I was lucid and take things back to the TV, where I could use the Pro controller.
I admit that I had huge reservations about Mario Maker upon its release, and some drawbacks like level visibility -- made loads better by a website tool -- still feel a little bit lacking even after Nintendo’s free and substantial updates. But as so many GOTY lists around these parts have said: It’s Super Mario. Forever, and with endless little endearing twists on its timeless feel. I'll be playing for months.
2015 has been a year packed to fucking brim with huge, open-world games. So many, in fact, that I've found myself pretty burned out on games in general lately. Hm. That doesn't mean I'm not playing some games, though.
Bloodborne: The Old Hunters
My last memories of Bloodborne from the spring were kind of sour, and it's only after deciding to take the plunge on its DLC, The Old Hunters, that I remembered mostly why that was: I hated the chalice dungeons. I had turned to them after finishing out most of the main game, and their mostly uninventive designs diminished one of the game's greatest strengths - exploring a bizarre, deviously crafted world from the lunatics at FromSoftware.
It only took a few minutes of hands-on time with The Old Hunters to remind me of what a deep and satisfying action game Bloodborne can be, and the DLC focuses in on some of my favourite bits from the main game. Namely, you'll be engaging with other hunters all the time, and they prove as pesky and rewarding as ever to best. I've also been enjoying some of the new weapons, which open up some new mixed speed and ranged play styles I felt like the original lacked.
I used my PS4 to capture my first 15 minutes with the DLC's first area, Hunter's Nightmare. Despite some rustiness, my LV59 hunter and I do alright:
updated my journal:
Any tips on Old Hunters & how to quickly get some of the new weapons up to speed would be hugely appreciated! I've been doing OK with my trusty Saw Cleaver so far, but I'm starting to feel the heat.
zombiepie finished his mind-melting sojourn through one of my all-time favourites, Final Fantasy VIII. Do yourself a favour and read that shit.
I wrote a review for the first time in a little while, this time for Until Dawn, a game I really enjoyed. Often its choices feel like potential for a tense diversion or clever connection to a moment from earlier, and a lot of the time that potential pays off. My girlfriend and I did a playthrough each, and each offered plenty of distinct set-ups for how scenes were arranged and which were included at all. The particulars of how or if characters met their grisly ends were likewise fresh. What struck us most was how seemingly insignificant details made a big impact time and again. Gestures made in a scene played for laughs can save or damn a character’s life hours later in ways we’d never have expected. I managed to save room for Until Dawn on...
...my GB user GOTY list! The big releases of the year are all here and done for me, so I've already ordered my list. I'm thinking my next blog will explain the particulars.
Thanks for reading. Here is a manic Pete from Twin Peaks for your trouble!